Defusing Spam Bullshit

Design decisions about Mercury and its control systems had largely been made by the time von Braun spoke to the SETP in August 1959. Yet persuasive and powerful as he was, he did not close the debate on piloted boost; in fact he fueled the controversy about whether a Mercury astronaut would have a meaningful role. Questions lingered about the pilot's tasks, especially from the test pilots themselves.

Just a few weeks after von Braun's speech, the SETP held its 1959 annual meeting. The conference opened with a session chaired by Neil Armstrong on the human operator in spaceflight. A paper by Scott Crossfield, as well as the other presentations, argued for the importance of the pilot.

Irritated by criticism of the imagined passivity of the astronaut aboard Mercury, two young leaders of the program made the case personally. Chris Kraft and Deke Slayton went to the SETP meeting hoping, in Slayton's words, ''to defuse some of this spam bullshit.''42 Yet Kraft did have to break the bad news: ''These guys were used to having their hands on the throttle of whatever they were flying, and to making it turn or climb or dive according to their input. So I went into some detail about what happens during a rocket launch and in orbit. Most of it was automatic, I had to admit. An astronaut was strictly a passenger when that rocket ignited and he began the ride into space.''43 Even the abort system was going to be automatic—the really scary things that could go wrong would happen too quickly for the human pilot to react. For Mercury, von Braun had won.

Slayton defended his own role (this before he was grounded by a medical condition in 1962). The case for piloted boost seemed lost, but what a pilot might do in orbit remained an open question. His presentation aimed to show the ''pilot's point of view,'' and to ''establish the requirement for the pilot, or astronaut, in Project Mercury.'' Slayton contrasted his view with that of the engineer, who ''semi-seriously notes that all problems of Mercury would be tremendously simplified if we didn't have to worry about the bloody astronaut,'' and with those in the military who believed that ''a college trained chimpanzee or the village idiot'' could replace a pilot. Slayton's thesis: ''if you eliminate the astronaut, you concede man has no place in space.'' Not only a pilot, Slayton argued, but an experimental test pilot was required (an ironic position, given that several of the Mercury astronauts would not have qualified for membership in the SETP before their selection). In summary, Slayton argued that for Mercury ''if everything works perfectly the pilot's task will be quite simple.'' But in the case of a failure or emergency, ''the task would become quite complicated but not beyond the pilot's capabilities.''44

The 1959 SETP meeting articulated the pilot's role for Mercury—passive passenger on the way up, active controller in space. But Slayton argued that even this situation was only temporary. He understood that the rocket experts believed the boost phase should be handled automatically, but added a hedge that ''we agree, at the present time.'' Slayton believed that in a future era of space station and orbital rendezvous, ''it will be desirable to give the pilot complete control over booster firing and powered flight trajectory.''

''Pilots get some good news,'' ran a New York Times headline about the October meeting, glossing over the bad news about piloted boost. ''Group is assured machines won't supplant humans on probes into space.'' The Times noted ''this was music to the assembled test pilots' ears, because their major theme long has been that they are not obsolete.''45

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